Steven Holl's work has been interesting to follow over the years but I rarely had the chance to see it in the flesh. A long time ago I saw a rather uninspired institutional example of his work at the University of Virginia but I suspected it wasn't representative of the rest of his projects. Later I had the opportunity to hear him speak.
I always liked his process sketches that were published in magazines alongside the images of the finished building. Often architects will show off a glitzy computer rendering of their work and Holl's stuff was always very human. It was easy to believe his sketches actually were part of the process. Also, each of his projects was different. Many architects pride themselves on a distinct style or look but sometimes this seems dogmatic when you see their body of work.
Holl seemed to exist outside of this. When I saw him he was speaking to an east coast ivy league crowd and he talked a lot about phenomenology and Rousseau and how this had inspired his work. I liked the work more than the talk. It felt like he was playing to the academic audience. As I already said, one of the things that has always struck me about Holl's work is the way he sketches and seems to enjoy the discovery that comes from "doing" or "experiencing" sketching. Drawing is not just a way to present an idea. It is also a way to discover one.
After his talk I approached him and told him how much I liked his work and how it seemed more american than he let on. I told him I thought it was wonderfully pragmatic and he said "I am a pragmatist." For a while after that, I kind of decided talking about design in a lecture hall was of limited use. If european phenomenology and american pragmatism could be synonymous I just didn't know what all the words meant.
His approach appeared to be good old fashion pragmatism to me. He didn't have too many rules, he was a tinkerer that knew when he came across a good building idea that worked for construction and esthetics and he used it irrespective of convention. Unlike rule based ethics, he relied on past experience to guide his future actions. It was improvisational and there was an inherent faith in mining the poetry of how a thing was made.
All of this to say, that when my son, Niles, and I finally had the opportunity to see his well-known St. Ignatius Chapel in Seattle while visiting an old friend in Seattle, I jumped at the chance. It was not a disappoint. It felt like one of the strongest buildings I've ever seen in the United States. It was more than a building. It restored my faith in the prospects for a meaningful american architecture.
Clearly the building owes a great deal to Ronchamp. But much like popular comparisons between Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth house and Johnson's Glass House, we can draw parallels between Ronchamp and St. Ignatius and see cultural identity. Ronchamp is sculptural masterpiece of abstract form. St. Ignatius is a sculptural building celebrating it's making. Those familiar with Irving Gill's San Diego work almost a century ago will see similar comparisons to Le Corbusier.
On St. Ignatius, the lifting inserts that were part of the tilt up technology used to assemble the building, remain as cryptic bronze-covered elements on the facade and the joints are expressed and one might even say celebrated. There is something vaguely puzzle-like about the way they interlock on the facade.
The roof is an entirely different creature. Light wells are expressed sculpturally as part of the roof scape. But it is hard to ignore the most impressive part of all this. Because Holl's roof is so odd, it is also a perfect vehicle for conjuring images that we don't normally associate with roofs. We are, in a sense, liberated from our "usual suspects" of imagery to conjure anew. Viewed from the outside one might imagine the roof as a tumultuous sea, sentinels of light at night or a kind of abstract congregation of sorts. From the inside this same roof elements express themselves as a plastered ceiling with an ingenious scoring pattern that goes a long way toward softening the curvilinear surface beyond what a simple drywall finish could accomplish.
Is it a cloudy sky? Heaven? Is the light coming in through shielded light wells another expression of all that lies beyond our direct seeing? One has the strong sense in Holl's work, there is no right answer.
He has played hard with the design sketches and come up with some very timeless and powerful forms. So much more I could recount about the building. It goes on and on. Suffice it to say, its a building anyone with an interest in american architecture should check out.